Why Whole30 Loves Ghee (and How to Make Your Own!)

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

For 30 days this month we’re exploring Whole30, the 30-day reset and refocus on whole foods. Whole30 isn’t a diet or a judgment of foods as “good and bad.” It’s actually a short-term reset that has helped many of our readers cook more and figure out the foods that make them feel their best. Read more about our coverage here.

If you are considering Whole30, or you are doing Whole30, then you know two things: Dairy is off-limits, and there is one key exception to the dairy rule.

While butter itself is off-limits, ghee and other forms of clarified butter are not. Bear with them. Whether you buy into the program or not, there is a method to this madness.

What is ghee?

Ghee is a type of clarified butter that originated in ancient India, and is widely used in Indian, Iranian, and Middle Eastern cooking. (Worth noting: While all ghee is clarified butter, not all clarified butter is ghee. We will revisit this.) It is widely available in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, specialty grocery stores, and natural markets.

Okay, but still, what is ghee?

As we’ve previously explained, butter has three basic components: butterfat, milk solids, and water. If you remove the milk solids and the water, you get ghee.

And the removal process itself is pretty straightforward. When you melt butter over medium-low heat and let it simmer, the water will gradually evaporate and the milk proteins and solids will sink down to the bottom of the pan. Those milk solids will ultimately be strained away, leaving only one of the original butter components left: pure butterfat, also known as clarified butter.

The thing that makes ghee different from any ol’ clarified butter is the length of the process. For ghee, the butter is simmered just a little bit longer, so the milk solids start to brown a little. As a result, ghee is more golden than regular clarified butter, and also has a slightly deeper flavor. (While ghee isn’t as rich or fragrant as brown butter, the process does impart a mellow, nutty flavor to the final product.)

Why ghee?

Ghee has a few important things going for it that have nothing to do with its potential nutritional merits. Because the milk solids have been removed, ghee has a much higher smoke point than regular butter, for one thing, which makes it incredibly useful if you’re going to be cooking over very high heat. (For the same reason, it’s good if you’re going to be cooking something for a long time.) In fact, the ghee’s smoke point is actually higher than most cooking oils, from canola to coconut.

And, because the moisture content is low and the milk solids are gone, ghee lasts much longer than regular butter. Keep it in a heatproof jar away from light and heat, and it can last three months without refrigeration. Keep it in the fridge, and ghee can last up to a year.

But why does Whole30 love ghee?

In general, the Whole30 guidelines are not particularly interested in the wonders of shelf-stabilization and high smoke points. The Whole30 program loves ghee because, while ghee is indeed derived from dairy, it doesn’t contain lactose or antigenic proteins like most dairy products. (This is true of all clarified butter, not just ghee.)

According to the Whole30 doctrine, milk proteins are the problem with dairy products. But because the milk solids have been removed, ghee doesn’t have those problematic milk proteins the program is designed to avoid. It’s is just butterfat — full stop.

The Whole30 folks really, really want you to make or buy ghee (or clarified butter) that comes from a pastured, organic source — the cows that produced the milk that produced the butter that led to the ghee should have been grass-fed, and raised without hormones or antibiotics — but this is not technically a requirement. Any and all ghee is considered A-OK.

How do I make ghee?

Funny you should ask! While there is no shame in buying your ghee (or other clarified butter), you can also make your own.

30 Days of Whole30: We’re kicking 2017 off with 30 days of Whole30. Why Whole30? It’s not a permanent diet; it’s not a prescription for eating. It’s just 30 days of eating whole foods and exploring a more purposeful, mindful approach to food. Read more here on what Whole30 is and how to follow along.